Hong Kong Race Report: Home Team

Published in the Dec. 21 issue of The Blood-Horse
Fireworks of a different kind lit up Sha Tin Racecourse Dec. 15, prior to the pyrotechnics display that closed the Hong Kong International Races.

An unprecedented three victories by Hong Kong-based horses, punctuated by Precision's win at odds of 64-1 in the HK$18-million (U.S. $2,308,166) Hong Kong Cup (HK-I), delighted both the crowd of 55,451 and officials of the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

They were the first victories by locally-based horses in the International Races since 1999. Moreover, it was the first time Hong Kong runners had won more than one race on the program since invitations were extended to horses from Europe, Japan, and North America in the early 1990s. Hong Kong horses also had a pair of second-place finishes.

"Wow! What a day," said Hong Kong Jockey Club chief executive Lawrence T. Wong. "Certainly this is one of the greatest days in Hong Kong racing.

"That's quite a good scorecard. Our racing team and the Hong Kong Jockey Club has worked very hard to improve the horse quality and today's result was a strong endorsement. That's the direction we will continue to get better."

All that unexpected success came at a price of HK$3.8 million to the Hong Kong Jockey Club, which pays an additional 50% of purse money won in the International Races to Hong Kong horses.

Earlier in the week, Douglas Whyte became the first Hong Kong-based rider to win the International Jockeys' Championship Races at Happy Valley.

All Thrills Too, the 7-2 favorite in the HK$10-million ($1,282,314) Sprint, being run as a group I for the first time, started the Hong Kong march to the victory stand, finishing 1 1/2 lengths in front of another local horse, Firebolt. Australian star Falvelon failed in his attempt to win the Sprint for a third consecutive year, finishing third.

All Thrills Too, a 5-year-old gelded son of St. Covet ridden by Gerald Mosse, covered the five furlongs in :56.4.

"At the half-way mark, our horse looked like he was in a bit of trouble," said trainer David Hayes. "But to the horse's credit, he responded to pressure and was there at the business end."

Olympic Express, who beat Precision by 3 1/2 lengths in the Hong Kong Derby in April, led the second one-two Hong Kong finish in the HK$14-million ($1,795,240) Hong Kong Mile (HK-I), edging Electronic Unicorn by a neck. Ridden by Weichong Mawing, Olympic Express finished in 1:34.9.

France's Ange Gabriel was the only international to win, taking the HK$14-million ($1,795,240) Vase (HK-I) by three-quarters of a length over the favored French filly Aquarelliste in 2:28.4. Ange Gabriel is a 4-year-old son of Kaldounevees. In his previous two starts, he won the Prix de Saint-Cloud (Fr-I) in June and the Prix du Conseil de Paris (Fr-II) on Oct. 20.

Henri and Antonia Devin, owners and breeders of Ange Gabriel, also bred Precision, whom they sold as a yearling for FF750,000 at the 1999 Deauville sale.

Falcon Flight, the lone U.S.-based horse to finish in the money, was third in the Vase. He was stuck on the rail down the backstretch and unable to get free until he entered the stretch. Sarafan, trained by Neil Drysdale, had a troubled trip in the Cup and finished fourth. Texas Glitter was eighth in the Sprint, the final race of his career. Delta Form was last in the Vase. Cayoke, who is now being trained in California by Julio Canani, but has yet to run in the U.S., was sixth in the Mile.

On a day of unusual performances, Grandera, the World Series Racing Championship titlist, was seventh in the Cup as the shortest-priced favorite of the day at 3-5. He appeared to be uncomfortable while in close quarters during the slowly run first part of the race, never got into contention, and was beaten just over two lengths.

"The pace was too slow. It killed me," said Grandera's jockey Frankie Dettori. "He needs a strong or even tempo. Then I couldn't get out, and it's a shame because I was on the best horse in the race."

Precision, owned by Wu Sai Wing, was in a stalking position entering the stretch of the 1 1/4-mile Hong Kong Cup. Paolini moved to the lead with about a furlong to go, but Precision, under Irish jockey Mick Kinane, quickened and caught Paolini near the wire. In another surprise, 6-year-old Dano-Mast, the first horse from Denmark invited to the event, finished third. Precision was listed as winning by a short head, a margin that North Americans would consider a nose.

It was the 4-year-old Anabaa gelding's first win since January, the fourth of his 17-race career, and his first in group-level competition.

"I'm surprised he won, yes," said trainer David Oughton. "I always thought he'd run a good race or I wouldn't have run him."

Precision got the distance in 2:07.1. The opening quarter-miles were run in :27.5, :27.8, and :25.6, compromising the chances of Sarafan, who was forced to come from well off the pace.

Oughton, who moved to Hong Kong from Britain 16 years ago, smiled and nodded as he talked about the performances of the local runners.

"It just proves that Hong Kong horses are up to world standards. There's no doubting that today," Oughton said. "I haven't studied the race closely, but I didn't see too many hard luck stories behind us there. I'd like to go back and take a look, but I think everybody had a chance."

However, Drysdale and jockey Corey Nakatani didn't have the same view of the race. Sarafan was bumped hard by Cellini along the inside in the first turn and ended up dropping back to last. Running at least 10 wide down the stretch, he closed a tremendous amount of ground, and ended up less than a length behind the winner.

"Going into the turn there was a lot of bumping and guys bouncing off the rail in front of us," Nakatani said. "We went from being in a good spot to going all the way back to the back door. My horse ran a great race. He was ready and he did everything I asked him to do.

"When there is no pace in the race and those things are happening in front of you, you get shuffled back too far and it's hard to make up that ground. But I think he was the best horse of the day. Hopefully, next time we'll get some legitimate pace in the race and we don't have to get shuffled back that far."

It was the fifth consecutive narrow defeat for Sarafan, including a loss by a head in the Arlington Million (gr. IT) and by a nose in the Japan Cup (Jpn-I), in which there was contact with Falbrav in deep stretch.

"He came with a lovely run, but he was just too late," Drysdale said. "Another length and he'd run past the lot.

"He put in a great effort. It's just that's part of racing. It was a very rough-run first turn. There was a lot of snatching-up going on.

"I was pleased with the horse. He put in a good performance."

After running last of 14 in the International Speed Trial on Nov. 24, his first start since May, Olympic Express, trained by Ivan Allen, was sent off at odds of 48-1 in the Mile. He took the lead about a furlong from the wire and managed to withstand Electric Unicorn's late charge.

While talking about his feelings, Olympic Express' owner Larry C.K. Yung neatly summed up the emotion at Sha Tin on what was Hong Kong's international race day.

"I thank many of our supporters," Yung said. "It's not only my glory, it's the glory for the Hong Kong people. I'm really surprised and happy about this."